EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

(P084)
Cognitive anthropology and cultural transmission; legacies and futures
Location U7-13
Date and Start Time 23 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2

Convenors

  • Mads Solberg (University of Bergen) email
  • Radu Gabriel Umbres (National School for Political and Administrative Sciences) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This panel brings together anthropologists for a discussion about 'cultural transmission'; a boundary concept that allows ethnographers to craft analysis firmly anchored in the ethnographic tradition, but enables participation in a larger conversation with other naturalistic approaches to culture.

Long Abstract

Cognitive anthropology has expanded considerably beyond the research agendas articulated by ethnoscientists and propents of "the new semantics/ethnography" in the 1960s and onwards. Today, researchers from a multitude of disciplines across the behavioural and biological sciences have contributed with insights into how cultural cognition and practices gets distributed, is transformed, and emerge from the interplay between a rich set of social, ecological and mental mechanisms. This pluralism is perhaps a sign that cognitive anthropology has finally come of age.

Observational and interpretative studies of social dynamics 'in the wild' is what ethnographers do best. This panel will bring together anthropologists and ethnographers with an interest in this complex relationship between culture and cognition through a discussion about 'cultural transmission'. We propose that the framework of cultural transmission presents a theoretically central and thus excellent boundary concept that allows ethnographers to craft analysis firmly anchored in the ethnographic tradition, but that simultaneously enables them to participate in a larger scientific conversation with other naturalistic approaches (for example developmental and evolutionary models) that seek to rigorously describe and explain the encultured mind.

We welcome approaches ranging from mind-informed ethnography to experimental approaches to mixed-methods takes on the relationship between culture and mind. We expect works that tackle diverse subjects such as essentialism, religion and apparently irrational beliefs, kinship representations and practices, the transmission of cultural representations, moral reasoning, cooperation and communication, folk epistemology, and other domains (the list remains open).

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Cosmic intimacy: metaphor, metonym, and the relevance of physics to Chinese divination

Author: William Matthews (UCL)  email

Short Abstract

This paper argues for the central role of metaphor and metonymy in reasoning in a Chinese divination system. This allows fortune-tellers to classify client circumstances according to cosmic principles, and in turn to accommodate the cosmological principles of modern physics.

Long Abstract

This paper takes a cognitively-informed ethnographic approach to cosmological reasoning, based on work with a fortune-teller and his students in east China, to illustrate the central role played by metaphor and metonym in drawing predictions, expanding cosmological categories, and incorporating non-traditional alternative theories. Based on the ancient cosmological and divinatory text the Yi Jing (Book of Changes), the method of Six Lines Prediction hinges on an interplay between symbols, which are made to stand metaphorically for clients' circumstances, and 'real' universal cosmic principles. Fortune-tellers metaphorically substitute Yi Jing symbols for clients' circumstances, and then incorporate them metonymically into the system of pre-existing cosmic principles. Cognitively, this facilitates comprehension of a new situation via an operation of classification, creating what I refer to as 'cosmic intimacy.' Furthermore, I argue that the same process of reasoning allows practitioners to accommodate apparently unrelated understandings of cosmology, and I show this with the example of parallels they draw with modern physics. Processed in the context of Yi Jing cosmology, these ideas produce a positive cognitive effect in the form of a conclusion that the ancient wisdom of the Yi Jing, and thus the efficacy of Six Lines Prediction, is supported (and thus legitimised) by modern science.

The legacy of a totemic belief and its transmission in the 21st century

Author: Attila Mateffy (Hacettepe University and University of Bonn)  email

Short Abstract

The paper focuses on symbolical and semantical ties between a Eurasian epic tradition and a Moldavian Csango ritual. The narrative includes the deer chase, the transformation of the doe and the totemic marriage. This belief has survived as a ritual, in which one performer wears a deer costume.

Long Abstract

This paper focuses on the symbolical, semantical and religious connection between the most archaic strata of the Central Eurasian (Ossetian, Tibetan, Mongolian, Turkic, etc.) epic tradition, namely the deer chasing motive sequence (AaTh 401) - the type of narrative that also appears in the origin myth of the Hungarian people (Gesta Hunnorum et Hungarorum, 1282-1285), and a current field research data of a fertility ritual in a Moldavian Csango village, Arini, Bacău County, Romania.

In the most archaic layer of this narrative we recognise the deer-chase led by the protagonist, the transformation of the doe and their totemic marriage. The figure of the doe was an ancestress-symbol in these communities. This Bronze Age shamanic and totemic belief has survived the appearance and spread of the world religions, and it was adopted as a communal ritual, in which, according to Hungarian folk traditions one performer wears a deer costume and the other members lead her into a dance and sell her as a bride in the wedding. The members of this "folk theater" were until 1989 predominantly village bachelors, but the age-group has changed. Because of massive Western European work migration, schoolchildren have taken over their role.

This paper is based on folklore texts and on field-research conducted in 2015, and argues that the deer-chase narrative has cultural, symbolical, semantical and religious ties with the 20th and 21th centuries new year fertility rite of the Moldavian Csangos.

'Cheat for chat': gossip as reputation-building mechanism for teenage girls in a Romanian technological high school

Author: Irina Lucia Savu-Cristea (National School of Political Science and Public Administration Bucharest)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper I explore the way peer-gossiping structures teenager girls´ views about their moral values and forges one´s reputation as congruent with success- models. Turning from "culture" towards cognition, I reveal what is culturally catchy among girls while constructing their reputation.

Long Abstract

Looking at interests among working-class teenage girls in a technological high school in Romania, I use gossip as a (possible) key for "deciphering" the boredom associated with school experience, and for "translating" social information exchange into possible success models. The informative strain of gossip, as theorized by Rosnow and Fine (1976) can be related to one of the most important functions of language as argued by cognitivists: advertising one's own advantages as a friend, ally, or mate (Dunbar et al., 1997). I suggest that gossip is not merely idle talk among women, or a way of reasserting moral values and splitting people into 'my group' versus 'the others'. For working-class teenage girls it is a powerful tool to build the reputation they dream about, in order to defeat the institutional and cultural forces that forge and reproduce social immobility.

Furthermore, the content of their gossip reflects the sources of what they perceive as good reputations. To achieve success, people tend to imitate either the successful or those similar (Boyd & Richerson 1987, Suls 1977). I suggest that these girls construct their reputation in a constant negotiation between "going with" the ones that succeeded (following capitalist models) and "going against" the ones they are presently living among/with (the familiar ones). Through subtle language abilities, the girls have to build and protect their reputation at every moment. Their continuous self-advertising process challenge that fact that women are seen as inherently collaborative, and less competitive than men (Guendouzi 2001:35).

Exemplary morals: mind, body and the cultural transmission of what's right

Author: Stephanie Grohmann (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

Interdisciplinary work on moral cognition is hampered by an untenable dualism between neurobiological and social constructivist explanations. Using the example of the cultural transmission of moral exemplars, I argue that emergence-based models of moral enculturation can overcome this problem.

Long Abstract

Neurobiological and social constructivist explanations of moral behaviour are often presented as competing, rather than complementary, paradigms. Not only does this feed into an implicit mind-body dualism within moral anthropology, it also hampers interdisciplinary work on moral cognition more generally. This paper argues that this disconnect is in part due to a lack of models that can account for both dimensions, and suggests that a non-reductivist, monist concept of 'mind' as an emergent dimension of 'brain' can be useful to overcome this issue.

This argument is illustrated with the example of the cultural transmission of moral cognition through the internalisation of moral exemplars. Exemplars here are culturally specific representations denoting categorical kinds of moral behaviour. Once observed in the process of enculturation, they are encoded in neural structures in the brain, and thus become part of the individual's cognitive and behavioural repertoire. Importantly, these 'socially constructed' notions of morality are not simply superimposed on biological 'hardware', but due to the plasticity of the brain fundamentally shape the biological body. One example of this is the physical capacity for empathy, which underlies a large part of moral reasoning.

The notion of moral exemplars as culturally transmitted representations is ideally suited to bridging the gap between the cultural specificity of moral concepts and the universal human capacity for moral cognition. It can help to combine ethnographic insights on culturally specific moralities with the neurobiological foundations of enculturation, and facilitate interdisciplinary dialogue between moral anthropology and the cognitive and biological sciences.

On the possibility of a cognitive ethnography

Author: Radu Gabriel Umbres (National School for Political and Administrative Sciences)  email

Short Abstract

This paper is a reflection upon the process of revising a "normal" ethnography through a cognitive lens. Could ethnography be amenable to mutual fertilisation with other approaches in cognitive sciences, while keeping in touch with the tradition of thick description of social life?

Long Abstract

This paper is a reflection upon the process of revising a "normal" ethnography through a cognitive lens. Could ethnography be amenable to mutual fertilisation with other approaches in cognitive sciences, while keeping in touch with the tradition of thick description of social life?

I will describe how my ethnography of morality in social relations in a Romanian village has been the source of inspiration for both experimental methods and a case study for testing evolutionary theories of cooperation and kinship. A contrast (as well as a similarity) will be discussed in relation to Daniel Nettle's experimental ethnography of "Tyneside".

The paper will end with a discussion of the limits and opportunities provided by ethnographers for cognitive approaches to culture and the transmission of cultural moral representations.

"From father to son": ideal constructs and founding practices regarding the transmission of artisan crafts (ironworking and farriery).

Author: Lidia Calderoli (University of Modena (Italy))  email

Short Abstract

The notion of cultural transmission is discussed based on the work of blacksmiths in Lombardy, Italy as an example. The question put forth being 'What is the potential need, be it cognitive or symbolic, of the different cultural constructions regarding transmissions of the trade?'

Long Abstract

The theme of cultural transmission is addressed in the context of the transmission of the vocation and the various types of apprenticeships for ironworkers in Lombardy (Italy), based on ethnographic research that focuses on the work of smiths and farriers.

Despite the commonplace idea that the job was something that is passed on from father to son, be it in the handing down of the workshop and the trade, or in the apprenticeship of the art, the artisans that were interviewed stated otherwise. They explained their vision of a craft transmission which takes place in virtue of a break from the paternal workshop (learning amongst other artisans), and where the continuation of the trade could also be dependent on workers who do not belong to the original family.

The question therefore arises whether the notion of a "craft handed down from father to son" only results from an outsider's point of view on the job. Is it somehow the result of an ideological view perpetuated by the artisans themselves? How does this vision resonate with the way artisans thinks about and practice apprenticeships? What needs are fulfilled by this representation of a "trade handed down from father to son"? Does it strengthen a professional identity that seems to be threatened by a persistent discontinuity?

Research with smiths in Africa, and the dichotomy between the categories of 'native smith' and 'acquired smith', provide some food for thought for answering these questions.

Between utility and morphology: plant classification of Paraguayan migrants living in Misiones, Argentina

Authors: Monika Kujawska (University of Lodz)  email
David Jiménez-Escobar (Museo de Antropologia, Universidad Nacional de Cordoba)  email

Short Abstract

We studied plant classification among Paraguayan migrants from Argentina. These lay people classify plants according to utility features, which goes against an hypothesis proposed by American researchers. We relate our findings to overall importance of phytotherapy for Paraguayan mestizo people.

Long Abstract

In 2015 we studied plant classification among Paraguayan mestizo migrants living in Misiones, Argentina. These people moved from similar environments to the ones in Missions. Hence they were able to continue traditional practices related to plant use. We asked 45 interlocutors from three rural localities in Misiones to group 30 preselected plant species (pile sorting task), which had achieved the highest frequency of citations as medicinal and edible species. The plant species were chosen based on results from the preliminary research done in 2014 with the same pool of interlocutors. Our findings are opposite to the conclusions of American researchers who claim that experts categorize plants based on mainly utilitarian features, while lay people (novices) on morphological cues (Boster and Johnson 1989; Nolan 2002). In our case, lay people classify and group plants according to their utilitarian features: mostly medicinal and, to a lesser extent, edibles. In the data analysis we used Principal Component Analysis and Cluster analysis as the main analytical tools. Apart from presenting the results of our study, we would like to raise a few issues: 1) whether we were successful in transmitting the idea of "synonyms", "kin", "plants that go together", and how these concepts were understood by study participants; 2) how the reliance on utilitarian features can be related to local importance of medicinal plants, and to phytotherapy as a preferred form of health treatment; 3) how the scientific concept of morphology should be re-articulated in folk epistemology.

Nonhuman primate ethnography and cultural transmission processes on the primatology/anthropology frontier

Author: Vincent Leblan (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement)  email

Short Abstract

Animal studies describe animals as cultural beings, yet overlook life science-theories that reduce cultural transmission-processes to information transfer. An alternative non-reductionist anthropological approach to animal "cultural" behaviour grounded in environmental history is proposed.

Long Abstract

With the advent of animal studies in anthropology (multispecies ethnography, anthrozoology, etc.), animals have become subjects whose behaviours, movements and habits are described as socially transmitted. Far from being only "good to think", living and behaving animals are now considered as disrupting our social, cognitive and ontological categories. In particular, the granting of cultural skills to animals and specifically to nonhuman primates (cultural primatology) appears to many ethnologists to be a logical corollary of the anthropology of nature. However, ethnological research focusing on animals has by and large ignored underlying theories of cultural transmission and primatology's assumptions about exactly what is transmitted. Research programs on the "biological foundations of culture" based on the study of animal behaviour usually consist in a unidirectional move of the culture concept from the social towards the life sciences. Cultural transmission processes are thus reduced to essentialist evolutionary explanations of "cultural information" transfer, which in turn are seen as laying the founding principles of a "science of culture" encompassing the human. Basing myself on a case study of chimpanzee use of oil-palm trees for building night nests in Guinea, an alternative non-reductionist anthropological approach is proposed in which the cognitive dimension of oil-palm nesting is embedded in the local ecology and human history of oil palm groves, rather than locked inside the animals' minds.

Epistemic actions, material culture and distributed cognition among marine molecular biologists

Author: Mads Solberg (University of Bergen)  email

Short Abstract

This is a cognitive ethnography of an experimental system designed by marine parasitologists to elucidate interactions between salmon lice and salmon. The approach of distributed cognition helps describe how a novel experimental system affords biologists with a powerful cognitive architecture.

Long Abstract

This paper presents a cognitive ethnography of an experimental system designed and used by a group of molecular marine parasitologists to elucidate interactions between salmon lice (an ectoparasite) and salmon (the host). By deploying the framework of distributed cognition, I describe how a novel experimental system affords molecular biologists with a cognitive architecture that can provide new insights about a troublesome relationship that annually costs Norwegian salmon farmers around 500 million Euros.

Central to this experimental system is a technology for genomic screenings known as RNA-interference. New biotechnologies like RNAi partly relies on an epistemic strategy that has been dubbed 'exploratory experimentation' (EE) by some historians and philosophers of science. EE does not strictly rely on Popperian hypothesis-testing, but rather a 'manipulate and see what happens'-approach to knowledge production. Distributed cognition, which extends the unit of analysis beyond the individual cognitive agent, offers a way to think about how a group of epistemic engineers per excellence propagate and transform representations through interactions with a rich material culture and a variety of cognitive artefacts.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.